Meike de Goede is a lecturer in African History & Anthropology at the Leiden University Institute for History. She works on silenced history and memory in Congo-Brazzaville and former French Equatorial Africa. This paper is based on interviews with witnesses in Congo-Brazzaville and archival research in the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence.
Just before the Presidential elections of June 1959, several Matsouanist leaders, a religious-political movement, were rounded up from their homes in Brazzaville’s townships of Poto Poto and Bacongo and taken to an empty factory building in M’Pila. In the weeks following, the youth wing of UDDIA, a political party, launched a violent campaign against the Matsouanists because they refused to support Fulbert Youlou, the leader of UDDIA. Many Matsouanists sought refuge in the factory building as well. On the early morning of 29 July 1959 the Matsouanists were put on transport to places far away from the native land of the Lari, the ethnic group to which the Matsouanists belonged. The process of deportation was chaotic and violent; 35 people died and at least 100 were injured. Only in 1965, after the toppling of Youlou’s regime, were the Matsouanists granted amnesty so they could return home.
The Matsouanists were followers of André Matsoua, who had founded an Amicale in 1926. When Matsoua and several other leaders of the Amicale were arrested in 1930 and tried for swindling, the people of the Pool region, where Amicale had many supporters, started a campaign of passive resistance. They ceased all forms of collaboration with the authorities until Matsoua would be released: they refused to pay taxes, to carry identity cards, to produce cash crops, and refused to accept material gifts such as food and drink at festivities. Their resistance did not end after Matsoua died in prison in 1942. From that moment on, the Matsouanists framed their support for Matsoua in messianic terms, thereby transforming Matsoua into a prophet who would eventually save the people of Congo. Until that moment, the Matsouanists would put their life on hold, and became politically apathetic. In the late 1950s, their resistance no longer only frustrated the French colonial administration, but also Fulbert Youlou, the rising political star who would become the first President of independent Congo. Youlou was a Lari from the Pool himself. In a political context in which politics was (and still is) based on a North-South division, the Matsouanists were Youlou’s natural support base, and their apathy thus a threat to his pursuit of power. It was not the French colonial authorities that finally crushed the Matsouanists, it was Youlou and his political movement.
The sad story of the Matsouanists is often framed in ethnic-regional violence. Political conflict between MSA (Opangault) and UDDIA (Youlou), between Northerners and Southerners, between M’Bochi and Lari did indeed occur in the context of run-up to full independence. However, the aggression against the Matsouanists did not come from the M’Bochi or the MSA supporters, but from within UDDIA, in other words, people with the same regional and ethnic identity. Youlou had previously drawn much of his support from the Matsouanists. Many of the agitated youth wing members that attacked the Matsouanists must have had relatives among them or even roots in the movement themselves. (Former) Matsouanists told me how they were attacked in their houses. For instance, a man told me what he experienced as a child:
“It was very tragic, they were treated so badly. I was only a little boy then, but I have seen what has happened to my father and mother. They came to the house. They went from house to house, looking for Matsouanists. When I came home from school, I saw that. They found my father and took him. He fell, and he was bleeding from his head. They beat him. I found my mother crying in a room in the house. They had taken all her clothes and left her naked. She was crying. She had wrapped a mosquito net around her naked body to cover-up her nakedness. My older brother quickly declared that he was the owner of the house; otherwise we would have lost the house as well. I have decided to always stay in this house, on the soil where my parents had suffered so much. I still live there.” (author’s interview, Brazzaville August 2015)
With fathers sent to prison, leaving behind their wives who were banned from the market so they could not support their children, and with children being banned from school, the violent campaign against the Matsouanists ripped families apart and left injuries which still affect people today.
What the story of the Matsouanists tells us, is that the transition to independence in former French Equatorial Africa was not so smooth and peaceful as has often been assumed. The Matsouanists became casualties of this not-so-peaceful transition. Paradoxically, the political apathy of the Matsouanists made them into an unlucky focal point of a complex political process that they tried so hard to steer away from. Even more so, the violence they suffered was actually not about them and their ideas. Neither was it about anti-colonial resistance, which is how the Matsouanists have often been framed. The Matsouanists pursued a different political project then the nationalists that were scheming in preparation for full independence. The latter was a political project that was not defined in their terms, and thus they refused to cooperate. A general feature of nationalist politics in the era of independence in Africa is that it was mass-based and mass supported, at least, that is what history books tell us. Youlou could not tolerate those that did not join in. But the events also suggest a generational conflict, with many youth actively disengaging from the political objectives and tactics of their parents’ generation, and embracing political modernity that independence promised. The case raises questions about how we understand the politics of the era of independence in Africa beyond ethnic politics, mass based nationalist discourses, and indeed beyond anti-colonial resistance. To what extent does our interpretative framework on social, political and religious movements in the age of independence in Africa reproduce – and reify – colonial (and Youliste) imaginaries. We have for long overlooked dynamics and details, such as those surrounding the fate of the Matsouanists in Brazzaville. It seems we have only begun unravelling the history of the End of Empire in Africa – much, much work remains to be done.